How to Preserve Artistic Identity When Life Gets in the Way; Finding Peace Amid Day to Day Interruptions

Cover Art for first Album

Here in Southwold, we have a strong artistic community. And, we enjoy strong art patronage. Whether one’s art is geared for personal satisfaction or commercial production it can be a monumental challenge to balance real life interruptions. There are many things that can interfere with our sculpting/writing/painting/composing.  In my own case it took a while longer to develop and collate the works chosen for my debut album than I’d planned. The challenges on my time to accomplish the first release were great. My own perspective as a composer, coupled with a degree of personal awareness of the general creative process, may provide assistance whatever your art medium happens to be.

The challenge lies in finding a way to recapture the mindset you had when you began your work of art before it was interrupted. If you’re retired, possessing bags of time to make progress, or a confirmed professional in your sphere of the art world, you might already have all of the time  resource you need.  Even then, life still chucks distractions at you which may interrupt your creative flow. As I write this, there are interruptions, family needs, pressing matters. *gentle sigh* Life, like music, vibrates. As I squeeze a tiny bit of artistic sensibility out of the crevices of a busy day I actually feel more at peace than hassled and hustled. Life is for living…you can always dedicate a little time later to resuscitate your art or music. Finding a measure of peace in coping with outside pressures is a choice you must make. Here are a few strategies which may help.

We all want to maintain our sense of self but must sometimes tuck our artistic identity (hastily) into a back pocket!  The good news is, you can still preserve your artistic identity throughout the day. Many artists have to hold a so-called day job. That job, which keeps you fed I remind you, may require patience…a great deal of it, in fact. Keep your self-definition as an artist close by. But, try also not to allow the knowledge that you’re capable of so much more taint your efforts at a more mundane sort of work. Your identity and pride in your art can elevate you throughout the day. People around you (co-workers) cannot be expected to reach out to you. Be the first to extend some understanding toward them. Remember to yourself, when you’re feeling pressed upon and indignant, that to be able to relate to those around you will inform your art style and composition to reach a broader audience. It is possible that your colleagues know nothing of your artistic pursuits/talents. Fine, if you prefer to keep a professional distance from them. You may even find the thought of having that little secret about yourself adds some mystique to your work personae. A small change of paradigm can bolster your inner strength. Make efforts to convert a negative into a neutrality…or if you’re pretty good at engaging optimism convert to the positive. The little bit of work you put into this will pay big dividends.

Even if a little tongue-in-cheek, ‘keep your friends close…keep your enemies even closer.’ The truth is there are no enemies at all. And, we all need a personal method for defusing daily tension and stress. Much of that stress is self-inflicted. The moment you realise this, the pressure subsides! We all contribute to each other’s quality of life, even in carrying out small and humble tasks. 

I often start a new piece, drop it mid-flight for some sort of real life ‘urgency,’ and then come back later to renew my engagement of the idea(s). Naturally, if I have a commissioned work I commit to its completion within the given time frame. In that case I have a job to do and I ‘remove myself from other runnings.’ That’s an eloquent way of saying I’ve made myself a temporary recluse to complete a commissioned work. When it comes to my own inventions (pieces written for my own pleasure/leisure) I am able to put them aside and return with no loss of depth to the work. If the circumstance requires me to drop what I was doing, I make mental or hastily written notes. A memory prompt like that takes me straight back to my moment of departure. In writing down a few words I have marked the thought I had at that moment. Sometimes I come back to my quick jot and find it utterly inappropriate…but it always helped to reorient my original idea. Albert Einstein preserved his conceptual brain space by writing notes and said famously (and I paraphrase), ‘why commit to memory [something] which one can look up.’ Lord knows I’m no Einstein. However, using memory prompts serve like a book-mark so that I can pick up on the page where I left off. You’d be surprised how few people use this simple tool.

I have discovered that being made to break from composing can impose an extremely helpful distance from my own works. If I were to remain too fully ‘in love’ with my own ideas I would lose the ability to edit or even abandon a poorly constructed phrase or melody. Take a moment to imagine this paradigm shift for yourself: Tell yourself that you are grateful for the thing/person interrupting your art; Say that you welcome the gap-time from your art (as it lets you view or hear your art from further away); Let yourself be pulled away from that particular project…if it has enough pull it will draw you back like a magnet. The compass will point in the right direction, and sometimes taking a circuitous route proves the more successful path. The map will still be there to read. What you are becoming is a better navigator, able to cope with the occasional/frequent detour! Even if you are playing devil’s advocate, applying this tip will help you to accept the whole process. It will also help to make you easier to live with…provided you care to address the concept of quality of life for those around you…as you may being to demonstrate some measure of good humour. In any case, you are becoming less a victim of life’s little inconveniences and interpositions.

My next secret to share is to place trust in unconscious storage. That means that your artistic ideas sometimes take flight in amazing ways if you allow yourself to sleep/dream on it. Modern man has to cope with many different levels of cognitive performance and absorption. The onslaught of information in this day and age means that our minds aren’t given any ‘processing time.’ In order to come to terms with the barrage of tasks, needs, duties, and all manner of outside interference which forces breaks in my creative endeavours I choose to view such distractions as a helpful part of the journey. I’ve had dreams which provided solutions to problem areas of form or mood in my music. Such moments are rare, it is true. However, I can better make conscious use of problem-solving efforts if I am not wound-up about the last hiatus within my work. [see also; adaptive-reasoning] When I place trust in the physiological process that takes place overnight, i.e. sleep and the ordering/organisation of experience, I know that my ideas and creativity are something still ‘at work’ in my mind.

Granting myself permission to let the music I’d put on hold play out overnight is like a pressure release valve. If my given productive time has run its course, and I still haven’t come up with a solution to a problem area in a new piece of music, the resolution often comes when I’ve allowed myself to let go of it. Or, if I’ve simply run out of time and am too tired to continue I feel better about letting go. Giving oneself permission to rest on an idea eliminates negative conditioning. You will begin to grant yourself rights and freedoms which can unlock the creative process. In this way the artist may better balance the active-and-passive elements to unlock the evolving work of art. This is not to confused with procrastination, nor a lack of work ethic. That condition is beyond the scope of this article! What I’m suggesting here is a way or method of applying a holistic methodology. The human mind at ‘rest’ can be a powerful instrument and unravel problems that had been blocked by various elements during conscious/waking hours.

Actually, for being sidelined for a while, I’ve had a few of my pieces over the years turn into something much bigger than they would have been. There was a measurable increase in quality for the pause. It has taken some time for experience to recommend me this. Thus, I  have shared these suggestions with you so you might recognise it sooner. Conscious or unconscious, isn’t it good to be able to let go rather than struggle to hold a thing too tightly. Life and art doesn’t have to be a constrictive and white-knuckled ride. If you have a new tool, use it for the right reason. Learn not only how to cope with life’s interruptions to your art process, learn to be at peace with them. In these ways you can convert those interruptions into welcome and useful tools!


Teasing out a Melodic Line; Melodic Development; Music Composition

A phrase originally presented as a motif may b...

A phrase originally presented as a motif may become a figure which accompanies another melody, as in the second movement of Claude Debussy’s String Quartet (1893) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You,ve written the notation for the initial musical idea. Now, it appears as a small bit of music on a rather large piece of blank paper. First thing is don’t panic. There is no such thing as writer’s block…only a pause (however long or short) before the next instinct takes the piece forward.

If the seed idea has enough gravitas it will eventually draw you back even if ‘life get’s in the way.’ I’ve had seed-ideas for works wait as much as a year or two before I felt I could re-engage the sounds to draw the piece out. In such instances, I have had substantial time to reflect on the basic function of the piece. I will have considered it with fresh ears and being distanced from the work, can find aspects I want to cut and parts to retain or take further. Don’t pressure yourself into believing you must instantly produce every wonderous effect in a single sitting. Even if you are possessed of that kind of brilliance and mental agility, your best works deserve some reflection and considered editing over a period of time. Ideas will come to you in time. This is the beginning to find how to improve your music.

What I’ve outlined above is a well established process for writers. Written works also often benefit by the author standing well away from his/her own work and taking a look with a (potentially) impartial view. For most of us a particular work doesn’t leap into the mind, in its complete and final form, and write itself fully developed work from the first draft. Elements of the editing and production process can add efficacy to your composition development.  The elements I apply to the process may be listed as;

  • Initial Production; a short musical line which conveys sentiment, creative flow should be relatively unimpeded at this stage…let your imagination fly 
  • Annotation; (in short hand or as detailed as you please) making written notes concerning the meaning you want to convey, emotional direction of the piece, texture, performance notes, the beginnings of form over the distance of the work, tempo and style, instrumentation directions, etc…
  • Personal Distancemoving toward neutrality, ability to consider or anticipate criticism and address it. After the initial burst of creative flow add a bit of hard discipline. Having a Critical Eye, or in this case -Ear, means being able to identify what is right about your current project, and what is wrong or not functioning up to potential. A composer who is too much in love with his or her own work risks alienating others if there is no consideration for the audience. If you write challenging work try not to antagonise the listener by excluding harmony/melody/rhythm that the average listener can relate to; conversely, if your work is too soft and gentle try to inject a bit of challenge to add interest. 
  • Re-engagement; If you aren’t easily able to achieve personal distance, re-engagement entails putting yourself into the plot again. Renew the original vigour you showed in creating the first bit of melody…where does it go next? Do a little fact-finding on chord progressions. Is the melody a call and response? Or does the short musical line stand on its own. If you interact with your notes you are engaging your critical faculties yet remaining in close contact with the ideas.
  • Finishing Development; Give yourself a break from the sounds you’ve written/recorded. Go back another day to play it back to yourself. Sometimes analysis takes care of itself. You may have had an event (or slept on it overnight) which provided a solution to any problem area in that particular composition.
  • Post Production; Similar to the finishing stage, you may need to consider mixing or re-mixing. How strong should the midi-values be? Is the sound quality good? Am I at risk of over-working the piece and loosing its simplicity? What kind of feedback have I received? How strongly/weakly do people react or respond to the work? How the piece reflects in the ears of a listener is key to knowing when to release your work for public consumption. Time to let the project stand, as is. 

After applying these elements, you may call the work finished when you are (relatively) satisfied with the outcome. The ‘perfectionist’ as well as the more ‘undisciplined’ composer will benefit from this kind of interdisciplinary approach.The perfectionist has a hard time knowing when to allow the work to stand, as it is. And the undisciplined artist will have improved the work by applying something of a systematic approach. Works that are nicely organised improve the delivery of the given melody.

Often, the smallest idea is the catalyst for a bigger work. From that small catalyst the composer may tease out the melodic line to explore different modes of expression. Just as a single word does not yet form a sentence, it remains the foundation of sense. Word choice and register govern the delivery of content and meaning. Suffice to say the process a writer goes through should be just as systematic and clear for the composer of music.

Part of the process of editing and developing your piece, includes the purpose or intent behind the work. In reality, you may set out to create music to express a particular mood. But, the work may take on a life of its own in the ears of an audience. I can only say that sometimes you may set out to write a jolly tune only to hear feedback about how melancholy it sounds to a listener. In such instances I can highly recommend a thick, yet understanding, skin. You must be robust enough to withstand unexpected feedback or an utterly different response than expected. In any event, you must answer your own question honestly…ask yourself, ‘Why am I creating this piece?’ If you have a clear vision at the onset, your intent will be more accessible to the listener. Understanding what you want to accomplish with your musical idea is key to its development and efficacy.


Mood-2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are to avoid making the melody obtuse, hidden, or overlooked you must ‘play’ with the idea. This may take place in a variety of ways. Ask yourself several questions to begin knowing where to start with teasing out the melodic line.

Is the melody obvious/identifiable? Is the melody long enough? Should it include changes of mood, texture?Should the overall work segue into another/other song(s)? How much repetition of the theme is needed? If I change song or mood should I return to the theme, or remind the listener of it throughout? Should I change the original expression of the theme to use variation? How does my theme sound in its relative Major or Minor? Do I want to use homogenous sounds, or changing rhythm? Is my song to be articulated, or legato? Do I mostly travel up for lifting sounds in this piece or down for drops? Does the musical idea feel complete, full enough? Does my work tell a story?

These are only a few useful questions you may ask yourself as you consider what next to do with the simple melody. An examination of your purpose behind the work, application of the writer’s editing process, and knowledge of how you might include or exclude other modes of expression will help you to formulate an overall structure to enrich the (small) melodic line you began with.

I recommend creating a sheet, listing relevant criteria, to serve as a creative driver template. You can use the elements I’ve shared to start, or make one independently from my suggestions. Either way, you’ll find you can make your own check-list of helpful prompts so that you can guide yourself through the development of your musical works! Novelists create characters, with often rich and complex back-stories. Why should your composition be any different?